Watercolour by Hermann Hesse
Here is a short story I wrote some years ago which I’d like to share with you on this Autumn morning. It is not difficult to see what the story is about and it is of course partly a tribute to Hermann Hesse’s work. His lovely water colour introduces the page.
When I was about ten there were brothers in school and privately I called them Narziss and Goldmund because they were so different from each other and yet somehow they belonged together. In the old story Narcissus can love no-one but his own reflection and his own reflection dissolves as he reaches out to grasp it. That is his suffering. But the Narziss that I knew was not like that. He had a handsome face and he wore his compassion on his open brow like a standard from the wars, like a young Hector. He worked hard, he was popular and he regularly came at the top of our class. Narziss and Goldmund loved each other but they did not understand each other.
Goldmund was subtle and his intellect glittered like a dagger with a jewelled handle. In class he was unpredictable. If only he could be more like his brother, the teachers said. He was musical and often the first you knew of Goldmund was his song coming ahead of him and the last was the music he left behind like perfume in the air. At the village dance after the harvest it was Goldmund that people watched and it was Goldmund who did not notice. The boy with the golden mouth was gregarious and attractive. But he was elusive and there was something about him which made me feel even then that he was a visitor in his own community. He was lent to us. I was not surprised when he was first to leave the village. We all turned out to see him off and all the girls swore to wait for him but he just smiled and struck out towards the first town with a small knapsack, a stick and a beautiful melody he invented himself.
There was talk of his going to Dortmund to continue his education. Some said music, others said he had gone into the church and been sent to Rome, that he was highly spoken of in the Vatican. There were even rumours that he had gone further afield, changed his name, given up everything to pursue an idea, to become an adept of the mystical practices of the East. In short, what happened to Goldmund became the stuff of local myth and in time we who had known him divided into two camps. Those whose pride he had hurt said he had burned himself out and come to nought. Others preferred to imagine him living the lives they would have liked for themselves – lives full of adventure, or of extraordinary asceticism and spiritual revelation, or perhaps of fame and adulation. In listening to this talk we learned much about each other but nothing of Goldmund.
Meanwhile Narziss had married and bought a plot of land. He built his modest house with wood from the tree of patience and turfed its roof with the flowers of honesty. He had sons who looked like him. He never spoke of Goldmund but a terrible endurance came into his eyes if you asked him about his brother. He would put his hand on his heart and he would say,
“My brother is in here and in here he can be free. That is enough.”
On Narziss’ land there ran a good stream which he used to water his crops and his animals. His wife brought water from the same stream to drink and to wash with. At the edge of his plot the stream went underground to reappear in the field beyond as a river. Narziss could see the field and the river over a gate in his hedge. The gate had been padlocked before his time and no-one now knew where the key was. In any case, the lock was thick with rust. In his heart when he was a young man, there was a yearning to enter the next field which looked so beautiful from his own land. When his family were out, Narziss had even searched the outbuildings for that key, thinking perhaps to find it in some hayloft or forgotten corner, but he never did. For a while there was a terrible conflict in his heart.
In time the yearning died down. Life became too busy for Narziss to worry much about anything but providing for his family and enjoying the prosperity that his labours brought him. By the time his sons left school to help him, he had extended his house with hard-earned stones of wisdom and he had built barns of prudence and charity against hard times. He gave work to six men and he was a person to whom others came in their need. He turned no-one away, although to each he gave from a different purse.
Years went by and his wife died; his sons did more of the hard labour on the land and Narziss had more time to look around him. In the evening, especially when the sun was setting, he liked to stand by the boundary gate and the yearning that he had known as a young man, grew in him again. Cut down like a thistle, it sprang up again more vigourous than before. His heart hankered after the field beyond where the wheat seemed always golden and waiting to be cut. With the evening sun in his eyes, Narziss sometimes thought he saw figures harvesting that wheat or resting in the stacks after their labours. Now and again it seemed, one or other of them might give him a friendly wave but they were never close enough to be sure. The river ran with milk and honey in the distance.
Narziss often looked wistfully at the rusty padlock and the tall hedge – again the conflict arose within. Why had he not dealt with these things when he was young and had his strength? His sons were busy enough now, he could not ask them to help him. Regretfully Narziss accepted that he had left it too late to strike out and find the key, too late to keep the brambles from the hedge. He had been too busy building his house, weeding his fields, providing for his family and giving charity to others. He had stilled his heart in a way that Goldmund did not know how to do and it made him sad. Perhaps after all, Goldmund had chosen the better path and he was ashamed of the judgments he had made those years ago.
He thought more often now of his brother. He remembered his laughing mouth, his bold countenance, his disregard for the everyday and his courage as he strode away from all he had ever known. He knew that in his position Goldmund would have let his land go to wrack and ruin, his children go hungry whilst he hunted for that key until he found it. He envied him a little. Why did Goldmund not suffer the same struggle as he? But I could not have been different, he told himself. It is in my nature to be steadfast and I could not abandon my duties to
follow my heart. Still I will do what I can for those who come after me, for my sons. I will bring a little piece of wire wool with me on my evening walk and I will remove the rust from the padlock though I will never be able to open it.
And that is what he did. Each evening that Summer after supper cooked by his daughter-in-law, he went down to the boundary hedge and sat by the gate. In the golden light he worked with his once skilful hands at the rust on the big, old padlock and all the while he soothed his heart with the beauty of the field nearby, the faint rushing of the river, the harmony of the figures in the distance. By the time his own crops were in the barn, the padlock was bright and well-oiled and that evening there was joy in his face as he went back to the house and to bed. It was as if, in polishing the padlock, Narziss burnished his own heart.
Autumn came and Narziss still took his walk each day. He needed a thick jacket now and a stick to help him and he leaned heavily on the gate when he got there to get his breath back before returning to the house for the night. As the months came and went it was by moonlight that he toiled down to the gate and each night it seemed further away. On such an evening with a full moon and a mackerel sky, Narziss was
rubbing his cold fingers and looking across to the river, black and silver in the moonlight, when something caught his eye. There was a figure moving towards him across the field. This he had never seen before. The people he had seen cutting wheat or making hay had always remained stationary like figures in the mind’s eye. This soul was different as it came – purposeful, deliberate and of course it was Goldmund moving easily, as lithe as when he left fifty years ago. He too had a stick, though he used it for cutting tall grass ahead with all the old energy that Narziss remembered. As he grew nearer Narziss could hear his song, a song he had heard in his dreams. As the notes settled into his old heart Narziss began to weep with love and with hope. His tears washed away the last grains of rust, the last traces of conflict within.
At length Goldmund was upon him, seemingly the same young man who had left, the same song on his lips, the same glitter in his eye. But no, now Narziss could see him close too. Goldmund too had aged. Leaner than Narziss and fitter it is true with a young man’s vigour about him, yet in his face were the lines of a life-time’s learning, the hollows of many hungry days and sleepless nights.
‘What have you learned on your travels, brother?” asked Narziss.
‘I have learned patience and fortitude’, replied Goldmund. ‘The very things you were born with. And tell me, what have you learned at home?’
‘I have learned joy,’ replied Narziss, ‘The gift you came into the world with I had to learn, and I learned it late’. They embraced across the gate and were silent a long time and then Narziss felt a movement in his heart like the spiral of the Milky Way.
‘What have you brought me, brother?’ asked Narziss.
Goldmund did not reply but put his hand deep into his shabby coat and pulled out a large key. At this Narziss was overcome and put his head on Goldmund’s shoulder for a good while.
‘Have I wasted my life, Goldmund, toiling after food and shelter? You have brought me my heart’s desire and I have nothing for you.’ He began to chastize himself but Goldmund touched his face and looked into his eyes. Narziss was quiet.
‘I am the key, brother, but you are the gate,’ said Goldmund.
When they found them next day the gate stood open, the old key in the shining lock.